Army should back the State Police not Replace them in counter-terror operations

The response of the Punjab Police to the Dinanagar terror strike on July 27 has stirred up a debate on the appropriateness of employing the State Police as against the Army in such a scenario. Critics of the police action have lashed out at the Director General of Punjab Police (DGP), Sumedh Singh Saini, for insisting on using the state police SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team even though the Army was readily available, a decision that caused a delay of several hours in mounting an effective response. On the other hand, former DGP of Punjab Police K.P.S. Gill, who is credited with terminating terrorism in Punjab, has appreciated the decision of the Punjab Police to go ahead with the anti-terror operation on its own. In a 28 July article in the South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR), Gill, who is cognizant of the poor drills of the local police, stated:

“The determination of the Punjab Police and its leadership to handle the response on its own, despite the presence of better equipped, better protected and better trained teams of central Forces on location, and despite some pressure to deploy these, is commendable. The DGP, Saini chose to lead from the front and whatever one may say of the quality of the response of his men, their motivation, their dedication to the task, their courage……cannot be denied. This is a tremendous change from the characteristic whining and complaining by most State Police Forces in the wake of a terrorist incident, and the eagerness with which an intervention by Central Forces is awaited and accepted.”

Taking a more nuanced view of the critical role of the State Police in confronting terrorism, Gill further argued that:

“It [the State Police’s response] is the only sustainable model to protect against the depredations of terrorists and extremists of various hues across unpredictable locations across the country. The Army cannot be everywhere……local authorities cannot, and must not, wait interminably for the Centre to send in appropriately trained or equipped Forces. The local Police, the first responders, must be ready, willing and highly motivated to react immediately and effectively on their own, and must take rightful pride in so responding. Every crisis across India cannot be handled from New Delhi. Decentralization is absolutely necessary, certainly in security matters”.

In the given context and in view of India’s long experience in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, the case for employing the Army is akin to missing the wood for the trees. DGP Saini, who was baptized handling the Khalistan militancy under the leadership of Gill, was seemingly not affected by considerations of turf in deciding to undertake the operations. The terrorists had already inflicted the losses that they intended to. Equally important, they were quarantined and did not have the maneuverability to move further. An additional factor in favor of the Punjab Police was the availability of ample daylight hours. In any event, the Army was always available and could have been requisitioned in an eventuality.

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The Endeavour of the Punjab Police has an immense potential to set a strong precedent for the police in other states to train and prepare for internal security challenges, be it Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) or the states in the North East or states in Central India affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE). In states battling insurgency with the active deployment of the Army, instances of State Police complacency and inclination to ‘piggy-back’ have become rampant. Some analysts have gone to the extent of suggesting that in the case of J&K, given the current state of near-normalcy, unless the Army reels back, the State Police would always remain reluctant to take on the mantle.

There have been several successful models of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism in India including Tripura, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh where police primacy was the template within which all operations took place. The final responsibility for maintenance of peace and order was vested in the Superintendent of Police of the district. The Army, where deployed, operated within the strategic framework jointly evolved with the police command, and supported the State Police which performed the principal tasks. Augmentation of police strength and capabilities in these states through training, equipment, mobility, fortification of police posts and, crucially, orientation, gave them a cutting edge over the insurgent and terrorist forces.

In a nutshell, DGP Saini’s decision, in spite of the fumbling battle-drills of the team on ground, promises several pay-offs in the long term:

  • Boosts the morale of the Punjab Police by making them realize that ‘they can’.
  • Sensitizes the State Police to re-orient and re-train in order to regain the capabilities that empowered it to successfully eliminate militancy in the state in early 1990s.
  • Presents an example for other states to emulate; to enable themselves and not look behind their shoulders for reinforcement by Central Forces.
  • Presents more options to the political leadership while deciding upon the deployment of counter-insurgent and counter-terrorist forces.
  • Leads to state governments according priority to capability-enhancement of their police forces and instills enhanced sense of ownership over internal security issues.
  • And, finally, conveys to Pakistan that its intention of tying down the Army in such operations may not always work.

Punjab Police had developed effective anti-terror capabilities in the past and that needs to be kept in fine fettle. The State Police rightly assumed ownership of the job at hand and other state police forces should be encouraged to develop similar capabilities, by judiciously utilizing grants available under the police modernization scheme. Such terror attacks would come unannounced and could even become frequent. While the pressure on terrorists in the neighboring state of J&K mounts, desperation is likely to be vented through any available window of opportunity that Punjab’s riverine terrain provides.

Punjab not being a declared ‘disturbed area’, the employment of the Army, that too in the face of the demonstrated will and capability of the State Police, is not the most optimum option. At the same time, there is a need to remain cognizant of the fact that it is Pakistan’s aim to enmesh the Indian Army in internal security challenges that are not only costly in terms of money but also result in frictions that make the army itself as well as the state at large vulnerable to the ire of citizens. Instead of exhibiting eagerness to take a leading part in every internal security task, it would be prudent for the Army to remain alert and be prepared and willing to back up the police.

Shashank Ranjan By Shashank Ranjan – Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India)

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